Speakers at Performing Arts Center Event Take Jabs At State's Education Plans

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MTT News Desk's picture
John Stampen

The title – “How Many Kids Left Behind? An Interactive Community Conversation on the Future of our Public Schools” – said it all. 

The Middleton School Board hosted a meeting Sept. 5 in the Performing Arts Center featuring a panel of public figures who spoke about school funding. Among them were state senators Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma), and Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), Julie Underwood, the Dean of Education at UW-Madison, Jeff Pertl, a Department of Public Instruction (DPI) policy advisor, and Joe Quick, the government relations specialist with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

The meeting discussed the current state of the state’s education budget and the “shadow” school system involving vouchers, various charters and private school reimbursement. The panel discussed the financial impact of these relatively recent developments, especially on rural districts with shrinking enrollment.

The panelists, for the most part, were in agreement that Wisconsin’s education system is in trouble. They presented information to show that the current system of school funding is not sustainable. They claimed that the state expansion of school vouchers will only exacerbate funding problems by creating two school systems that have different rules and funding, and that rural districts were especially hard hit by enrollment reductions and funding formulas that leave them with inadequate resources. 

The panelists also noted significant challenges with the current formulas for education funding.

Pertl shared statistics on the increase of poverty in Wisconsin school districts and its impact on achievement. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), from 2003 to 2012 the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price meals went from 29.5 percent to 43.2 percent, with many rural districts experiencing even larger increases. 

Underwood indicated it is more difficult and costly to educate students living in poverty, and said current funding models don’t adequately account for the need.

Pertl shared data showing lower performing schools have higher concentrations of poor students. The panelist described several additional challenges that go with educating students living in poverty.

Vinehout described the changing landscape of rural school districts.  She said 12 years ago in one of her district’s school districts, 18 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch: today, that figure is closer to 50 percent.

“The effects of poverty undermine children’s ability to learn,” Vinehout said. “It takes more resources, financial and staff, to help economically disadvantaged students keep pace with their peers. Yet such aid to assist schools has steadily declined.”

Vinehout went on to indicate enrollment has also been declining in many districts, which reduces revenue those schools receive. 

Several legislators believe that in the face of declining enrollment, rural school districts will need to consolidate further, but Vinehout believes rural districts have already consolidated as much as they can.  She noted that several students in her school districts already have bus rides of more than an hour to and from school.

While the perceived challenges have increased, Vinehout said state aid to her school districts has decreased. She shared that 18 years ago the state paid 82 percent of the education costs in the Alma Area School District but now pays just 40 percent.  

Vineout shared several examples of how resources are spread very thin and explained that one of the larger items in her school district budgets is now fuel to heat the schools and run the busses. 

Schultz said school districts he represents face similar challenges.  He began his remarks by thanking the educators in attendance.

 Schultz’s wife, Rachel Schultz, is the superintendent of schools for Richland Center. The senator said she refers to herself as “a teacher,” which was well-received by the audience of 250, which included many educators.   

Schultz told a story about schools and parents.  He said that when parents aren’t actively involved in school, it is usually a problem.  He said he had recently attended a school function in his district and noticed a lot of parents were at the school that day. He viewed this as a good thing, so he asked about it.  He found out the parents were there not necessarily to support their kids, but rather because it was a place they could get a cheap meal.

Schultz noted that many of the employers in his district are non-union and that wages have declined in this economy.  He acknowledged, however, that businesses are competing globally, and that this can put downward pressures on wages.

Although Schultz agreed students living in poverty present many challenges, he didn’t necessarily think the solution was to pay more to schools.  Instead he said state government and communities should work to address the root causes of poverty.   He also shared that many rural school districts performed very well, and that rural areas were are to working together as communities.

Pertl provided a brief tutorial on state funding and explained that the state sets a revenue limit on what districts can spend and that this spending is funded by state dollars and local property tax levies.   In general, the greater the property value a district has, the less state aid it receives and the more local schools are funded through local property taxes. 

Pertl also noted the state experienced its first revenue cut in history (5.5 percent) and that this combined with the recession has resulted in there being 3000 fewer educators in the state. 

Pertl explained the different ways public schools and private voucher schools are funded.  Overall, the state funds 61 percent of the costs of public school students, but 100 percent of the costs of voucher school students.

Vouchers were first tested in Milwaukee schools. The goal was to reduce the state’s minority achievement gap.  While vouchers do give students more options, including attending religious institutions, DPI data shows that voucher students are less proficient in both reading and mathematics than public school students.  

Underwood described the voucher phenomenon as  “publicly-funded private schools.”

While vouchers to pay for private schools outside of Milwaukee are currently capped at 500 for the first year and 1000 for the second year, people on both sides of the debate predict the enrollment cap will be temporary. 

Underwood alleged any further expansion of the state voucher program will essentially create two parallel school systems.  Voucher schools would receive substantially more state aid per pupil, could control who attends through admissions and expulsions, and would not be subject to the same rules or regulations as their public counterparts. 

Public schools would end up educating higher-needs students – including those in poverty, those who require special education, and those who speak English as a second language - with less revenue per student than their voucher school counterpoints.

Schultz agreed the recent voucher program is creating a second school system and amounts to a large new middle class “entitlement program.”

“Look, I voted for charter schools at different times and choice schools,” he said. “And why did I do it? Because I want our kids to have the best and I know that sometimes you have to look outside the box for a new solution and it’s worth trying.”

Schultz continued, “But I don’t quite understand [why] – when the facts are in, when we know that our public schools are doing a superior job – we put the money in the other pot?”

“To me it looks like the largest middle class entitlement ever, and how’s that conservative?” he continued.

“We are not guaranteed equity of condition, but we are guaranteed equity of opportunity,” he concluded.

Meeting organizer Claudia Progreba urged audience members to get involved and oppose the expansion of the state’s voucher program.



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